Pee-Wee's Playhouse Actors Who Have Passed Away

The following article includes brief mentions of a murder-suicide and alcohol addiction.

"Pee-wee's Playhouse" premiered on CBS in the fall of 1986. The show, which The New York Times described as a "​​combination of child's play, burlesque comedy, and avant-garde art," was aimed at the elementary school set, but its humor and plotlines appealed just as equally to their parents. A truly unique mix of live-action comedy, puppetry, claymation, and cartoon sequences, the Saturday morning series had a jammed-packed cast that included big names like Paul Reubens, Laurence Fishburne, Phil Hartman, and a even a young Natasha Lyonne.

Reubens, of course, was the show's creative mind. He developed the titular character back in the 1970s while performing with the LA-based improv group The Groundlings. It was there that he met many of his favorite collaborators, several of whom worked alongside him on the series for the entirety of its five-season run. Unfortunately for us (and for Saturday morning TV as a whole), many of these comedic geniuses have died in the three decades since the show went off the air.

While many of the show's stars are still working on-screen and behind the scenes in showbiz today, below we're taking a closer look at the "Pee-wee's Playhouse" cast members we've lost. From Reubens to Hartman to guest stars and folks who played recurring characters, read on to see how many of these actors you remember.

Paul Reubens

As mentioned above, Paul Reubens' best-known character was the driving force behind "Pee-wee's Playhouse." Born in upstate New York and raised in Florida, Reubens didn't get his start in showbiz until the 1970s, when he joined The Groundlings. He spent several years performing as his alter-ego — developing the Pee-wee Herman character, a childlike stand-up comedian with big emotions and very little common sense on stage — before eventually being offered an HBO special in 1981. That special was successful enough that it landed him a movie deal — "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," which was directed by Tim Burton and premiered in 1985 — that then evolved into a series order by CBS.

After "Pee-wee's Playhouse" went off the air in 1991, Reubens suffered some legal trouble (there was the infamous indecent exposure charge, as well as a misdemeanor obscenity incident) that put a major damper on his success. However, the legal battles didn't fully derail his career, and he had a handful of smaller roles and guest appearances in projects like "Blow," "30 Rock," "The Blacklist," and "Gotham" over the next few decades.

In August 2023, fans of Reubens' unique sense of humor were shocked when his team announced his tragic death at age 70. A statement posted to the actor's Instagram account revealed that he had been quietly diagnosed with cancer six years prior. "I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you," read Reubens' touching final farewell to his fans.

Phil Hartman

While it was Pee-wee Herman that defined Paul Reubens' career, it was Phil Hartman's untimely death that ultimately defined his.

Hailing from Ontario, Hartman first met Reubens in 1975 when they were both members of The Groundlings. It was Hartman who helped Reubens flesh out the Pee-wee character, and it was Hartman who also helped write the script for "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," plus several episodes of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" (he actually pulled double duty on the series, frequently appearing as Captain Carl in Season 1). Unlike Reubens, however, Hartman was also able to find massive success outside of the Pee-wee universe. He was an eight-season cast member on "Saturday Night Live," had a starring role on "NewsRadio," and voiced several characters on "The Simpsons," among other things.

Then, in 1998, while arguably at the height of his career, Hartman was killed by his wife in a murder-suicide at age 49. The tragic event rocked Hollywood, and fellow creatives loudly mourned the actor who seemingly hadn't planned on a career in showbiz. In January 2023, Jon Lovitz recalled to Howard Stern how Hartman was plucked out of the audience at a Groundlings show, only to knock the socks off of the on-stage professionals with his timing and wit. "​​Everyone loved him from The Groundlings to 'Saturday Night Live" to 'News Radio.' And comedians ... they're very, very competitive, you know, and someone always has a problem with somebody, but not Phil," Lovitz told the radio host of his late friend.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat

Leslie Jordan

Unlike Paul Reubens and Phil Hartman, Leslie Jordan was not an essential piece of the Pee-wee Herman universe. In fact, he only appeared in a single episode of the series as Busby, the Pee-wee copycat. Still, his performance was memorable enough we just had to include him on our list.

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Jordan got his Hollywood start in 1986 on the action-adventure series "The Fall Guy." His career really took off several years later when he appeared in an arc of episodes of "Murphy Brown." From there, the diminutive actor landed an increasingly impressive series of roles in films and TV shows like "Hearts Afire," "Will & Grace" (for which he won an Emmy), "American Horror Story," and "Ugly Betty." But even more than his acting chops, Jordan was known and loved for his gregarious, fun-loving personality. He was a frequent guest on daytime talk shows and amassed nearly 6 million followers on Instagram, where he shared humorous clips of stories from his life.

When Jordan died at age 67 following a single-car crash caused by sudden cardiac dysfunction in 2022, Reubens took to Twitter to pay tribute. "He was so unique and funny. I loved him instantly. That was one of the greatest, most magical superpowers he had — you fell in love with him as soon as you saw him, and he spoke anything," he wrote, adding, "In person, he was kind, generous, gentle, and would quip stuff under his breath that was hilarious. ... Simply, there was no one even remotely like him. He was pure magic. RIP, Leslie."

Gilbert Lewis and William Marshall

Gilbert Lewis and William Marshall (pictured left and right, respectively, with Paul Reubens) played the same role on "Pee-wee's Playhouse" — the King of Cartoons. A lesser-known member of the Pee-wee universe, the king's role was simply to introduce the various animated clips that would play throughout the episodes.

Lewis was the first actor to hold the job. The Philadelphia native had about a dozen on-screen appearances under his belt before he was tapped for the children's series. While he knocked the comedic gig out of the park, Lewis switched gears considerably after he donned the golden crown in the first season — gone were the funny accents and child-friendly catchphrases, replaced with blazing guns and four-letter words in projects like "Blaze," "Candyman," and "Don Juan DeMarco." When he passed in 2015 at age 79, Reubens remembered him and his work on the Pee-wee website, writing, "[Lewis] was a terrific actor and wonderful man — very nice and very serious about acting. I liked him very much."

From Season 2 on, Marshall portrayed the King of Cartoons. Hailing from Indiana, he was best known for his work in blaxploitation films like "Blacula" and its sequel. He was also a widely respected stage actor, appearing on Broadway in shows like "Carmen Jones" and "Peter Pan" and in multiple Shakespearean tragedies, most notably "Othello." Marshall died in 2003 following a heart attack at age 78 and was remembered by The Guardian as being one of a handful of actors responsible for primarily shifting audiences' opinions about Black characters in the '70s and '80s.

John Paragon

John Paragon had not one but two recurring roles on "Pee-wee's Playhouse": Jambi the Genie and Pterri the Pterodactyl. He also worked tirelessly behind the scenes, writing and directing dozens of episodes of the show over its five-season run.

Paragon met Paul Reubens and Phil Hartman through The Groundlings, that same LA-based improv group that has been the incubator for some of Hollywood's funniest comics. His humor had, Reubens noted to the Los Angeles Times, a "wickedness and a slyness ... and a naughty edge" that "made you want to work with him." Reubens also noted, "He was very charismatic, and his performing was very electrifying. He was hard not to notice." That personality definitely translated on-screen (case in point: Jambi's cheeky catchphrase, "Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho!"), as well as off-screen (Cassandra Peterson has widely credited him with helping her develop her character of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark).

In addition to his work in Pee-wee's world, Paragon appeared on "Seinfeld" as the latter half of Bob and Cedric, as well as in "Echo Park" and "Eating Raoul." He also helped bring improvisational comedy to Disney attractions, parks, and many characters through his Walt Disney Imagineering partnership. When Paragon died at age 66 in 2021 from severe cardiovascular disease caused by excessive alcohol use, his cremated remains were placed in an urn designed like his Jambi the Genie box — a fitting end for one of the most beloved Pee-wee characters of all time.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Bernard Fox

Another one-time guest star on the series, Bernard Fox was a Welsh actor best known for his role as Dr. Bombay in "Bewitched." In fact, his "Pee-wee's Playhouse" character, Dr. Jinga-Janga, wasn't a fully original personality, but rather a spoof of his most famous part.

Born into a performing family, Fox began acting professionally at an incredibly young age, and was already a well-respected stage manager who had appeared in a number of smaller theatrical productions by the time he was a teenager. After a brief stint in the Royal Navy (he served as a minesweeper during WWII), he returned to the biz, working on projects like "Home and Away," "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," "Hogan's Heroes," two movie retellings of the sinking of the Titanic filmed nearly four decades apart (yes, including the 1997 blockbuster hit), and "The Mummy." In 2001, after an illustrious five-decade, on-screen career, Fox retired — electing to spend his golden years focused on family life and other passions, like magic and illusion.

Fox died of heart failure in 2016. He was 89. Upon his death, The New York Times summed up his career perfectly, calling it "the lot of the hard-working character actor: His face and voice were extremely recognizable, but his name was not." Indeed, although Fox had a resume any working actor would kill for, he unfortunately never became a household name or tabloid cover star in the way of Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt.

Calvert DeForest

While the vast majority of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" guest stars were professional comedians, brought on because of their impeccable timing and side-clutching improv skills, not all of them were. Calvert DeForest is a perfect example of this. Best known for not being a seasoned comic, DeForest showed up in a single Season One episode as Pee-wee's new friend, Rusty.

The Brooklyn native didn't get his big break until his 60s. Two "Late Night with David Letterman" writers (who'd met DeForest while working on a student film project, according to The New York Times) introduced him to the talk show host, who, as legend has it, was charmed by his complete lack of Hollywood polish. Letterman signed him immediately, rechristened him Larry "Bud" Melman, and sent him out on the streets of NYC to do everything from celebrity impersonations to covering the Winter Olympics to handing out hot towels at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. DeForest regularly appeared on Letterman's various late-night shows for 40 years, from 1982 to 2002, when he finally retired from show business. Along the way, he won roles in well over a dozen TV shows and movies, ranging from "Wings" to "The Dana Carvey Show."

He died in 2007 at age 85, following what his reps simply described as a long illness (via CBS News). In an interview with Fade to Black some years before his passing, DeForest expressed his desire to be remembered for "just being able to make people laugh and knowing they enjoyed my humor." As far as we're concerned, he and the rest of these "Pee-wee's Playhouse" stars did just that.